Jews, blacks mix rhythms in Berkeley

Scott Armel broke into a playful mandolin klezmer solo while Daniel Ratner laid the foundation with a steady bass line. Meanwhile, a flutist played a gentle harmonic line. Later, saxophone and drums etched out a steady rhythm riff while another bassist improvised up and down the neck.

Titled "Collective Spontaneity," the musical gathering was a meeting of klezmer and acid jazz, Jews and African-Americans. Held Saturday night at U.C. Berkeley Hillel, the event was created to bring two cultures together to explore music, not politics.

By looking at the relationship between two musical strains, the program was designed to ease some of the rifts that have developed between the two groups.

"We wanted to let the two cultures speak through the music and to use this as a starting point for understanding that the cleavages between African Americans and Jews are not that big," said Adrian Bankhead, a co-founder of U.C. Berkeley's African American Theme House and a junior.

The event was co-sponsored by Hillel's Taksim Club and the African American Theme House. It was designed to build on the spirit of collaboration that grew out of last spring's Alabama Church Rebuilding Task Force, when a group of Latino, Asian-Pacific, African-American and Jewish students helped rebuild a church in Boligee.

Exploring the relationship between klezmer and jazz, the program opened with brief lectures on the origins and styles of both, followed by performances by the Berkeley Klezmer Band and the S.F.-based Broun Fellinis that kept the large crowd dancing until well past midnight.

Taksim, established this past fall to promote greater awareness of Jewish cultural and artistic tradition, takes its name from the Turkish word for an energetic musical improvisation. That captures the spirit of the new group, said Ratner, a Berkeley senior, Taksim leader and bassist-vocalist with the Berkeley Klezmer Band.

At the beginning of the academic year, Taksim held an event celebrating the culture of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. That event set "Collective Spontaneity" in motion, according to Bankhead.

"I stopped in to Hillel to check out the Middle Eastern night, and I had the chance to meet Daniel," Bankhead said. "I was very impressed with what Taksim was doing. When Daniel later sought me out to discuss Taksim and the African American Theme House jointly hosting an event, he discovered that I had already written up a list of steps needed to make such an event work."

To open last Saturday's event, Trevor Weston, a lecturer in Berkeley's music department, gave an overview of jazz history, complete with samples from Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Armel and John Ehrlich, members of the Berkeley Klezmer Band, explained the roots of klezmer music.

The presentations sketched out the common ground shared by the two musical forms: Jazz and klezmer music both grew out of folk traditions popularized by traveling musicians. Both have deep roots in liturgical music and both served as a voice for marginalized groups.

For Yossi Hets-Ohana, director of activities at Hillel, building links between Jews and other groups goes hand in hand with creating enhanced appreciation of the different cultures within Judaism itself.

That is why Hets-Ohana, born in Morocco and raised in Israel, believes that events such as Hillel's Mizrahi-Sephardic High Holy Day celebration go hand in hand with last weekend's "Collective Spontaneity."

"I know that there are still Mizrahi students who feel alienated from Hillel, since they see it as a white organization," Hets-Ohana said. "So we need to find ways-like Taksim's Middle Eastern Night, or Mizrahi Shabbat-to make the organization more welcoming for all Jewish students. Only by valuing diversity in Jewish culture can we be in a position to build relationships with other communities on campus."